Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Writing Battle Reports

Tools of the trade: Camera, notepad, and a white backdrop for pictures (if you wish)

Note: This post has also been graciously posted over at +++From the Warp+++, a great 40k blog. It's a privilege to be recognized over there, and I suggest you check out that blog if you haven't done so already.

Due to the popularity of battle report articles in White Dwarf magazine, and the natural inclination of players to share their gaming experiences with others, writing battle reports has become a mainstay of the 40k community. Having a well written report allows you to share your game with others in a more engaging way than simply "Yeah, my army totally kicked butt last night, it was awesome. You…uh…should have been there." A detailed record of the game allows others to criticize (hopefully constructively) your tactics, see the performance of armies and results of tactics that they might not have much experience with, and simply enjoy the read.

Beyond sharing it with others, having a decent record means you can share it with your future self years down the road, see have far you’ve progressed in the hobby, and relive your past victories. Or as is usual in my case, shake your head at the horrible mistakes you made that led to your crushing defeats. In this article I will go over some of the things I have learned in writing my own battle reports over the past few years.

Briefings and Army Lists
Before your battle you should give some thought to writing a briefing (and if you can, get your opponent to do one as well). Obviously with pick up games this can be difficult, but if you have any time before the battle, try to write a paragraph or two. Write why you made the army selection you did, and come up with a general plan for the battle—even if you don’t know what scenario you’ll be playing. At the very least, doing this will solidify a battle plan in your head, and make you put some thought into how you will use each unit during the battle. Going into a battle prepared will always improve your performance. As far as the battle report goes, it gives the reader something to look for when reading the report: Will your plan work? Will your super-unit perform the way you hope? If you can get your opponent to write his own briefing ahead of time, this part becomes even more interesting, as the reader will be looking to see how one player’s plan will play out against the other’s. There can even be some amusing consequences, as when a player makes a prediction about the battle in a briefing, and the results are in remarkable agreement (or disagreement) with what actually happens. If you don’t write your briefing until after the battle, you don’t get the full effect of this, but it’s still worth the effort to present your plan.

Make an effort to get a copy of your opponent's army list after the battle, even if you have to quickly scribble down the its contents. You want to avoid writing a report that describes in minute detail what wargear each and every model in your army has, only to describe your opponent’s army as "He had some guys with some stuff. And a tank, I think." As long as you have a general description of each unit in the army, that should be good enough. I usually leave out the minutiae of the wargear in my battle reports--if the wargear is important, I'll probably mention it in the description of my plan, or mention it in the meat of the report when the wargear actually sees use. Players who are more focused into precise army lists and tournament armies may decide to be super-specific here.

Taking Notes
This is by far the most important part of making a battle report. You want to be able to accurately record what happens in you battle, yet not have it disrupt the flow of the game, or not take so much time that your game becomes twice as long. Taking notes will take some time however, so you should warn your opponent ahead of time out of courtesy.
Folly from my early days: a messy sketch map and overly detailed notes

If you have a friendly opponent who wants to help, this makes it far easier. I have a binder where I keep my notes and army lists from previous battles. I use the binder as a writing surface for my note paper. When it is my opponent’s turn, I take notes; when it’s my turn, I graciously ask him to take notes. This spreads the work and keeps the game moving—while one player is moving units and rolling dice, the other takes notes on what is happening. If you’re fortunate enough to have a third person around watching the game, you can ask them to take notes—at the very least it will get them more involved in the game.

So just what do you write down? In the movement phase, I usually only mention which units arrived from reserve, what units regrouped, or what units made especially interesting or bold moves. The pictures you take (see below) will usually cover everything else.

In the shooting phase I get a little more detailed. I usually jot down who fired at who, and the results, abbreviating wherever possible. If anything is remarkable about the shooting, such as an entire unit of 30 shoota boyz firing on a unit of five marines desperately holding onto an objective, I’ll go into more detail, such as listing the number of shots fired, hits, wounds, and saves. I may or may not mention these details in the final report, depending on what happens. If all the marines are killed, I might say "The shoota boyz unloaded everything they had on the tactical squad from close range, wiping out all five marines in a hail of gunfire." If, however, the results are remarkable or unexpected, I’ll go into more detail: "The shoota boyz fired on the marines with 60 shots, 25 of which hit, causing no less than 18 wounds. And yet, as the smoke cleared, all five marines were left standing!" If it shocks or surprises you during the game, then you want to mention it in the report with as much detail as possible! Unexpected, exciting occurrences like this is one of the main reasons you’re writing a report, so it behooves you to record it in detail.
Some more modern notes, annotated by section

The assault phase is where most of the decisive action happens, and so I usually pay a lot of attention to detail here, taking careful notes, and most of the time I’ll note down the number of attacks, hits, wounds, and failed saves. Again, I’ll rarely include all those details in the actual report, but the key is, the details are there if I want them. Nothing is more frustrating the day after when you are writing up the report and can’t remember what happened, and your sparse notes aren’t detailed enough to help. Writing down too much information is always better than too little. As you gain experience in note-taking you'll start using your own shorthand and abbreviations that you'll be able to decipher later on.

Taking Pictures
Pictures of your battle are important! It gives the reader an immediate sense of what the battle looked like, rather than trying to imagine it in their head. It also gives you a chance to show off the paintjobs that the players have done. You want to showcase that amazing moment when the two army commander's collide in assault, or that lone trooper managed to take out a tank all on his own, and your readers want to see it too. Try to take a least one picture per player turn--you may not end up using them all, but having too many pictures is much better than not having enough.

It's not easy to take great pictures of a game in progress, but no one expects them to look professional. But make an effort to take some decent pictures. Pictures that are blurry or dark just look sloppy.
Left: Good, Right: Bad

In some cases you'll be able to take pictures from several feet away, but depending on the amount of terrain on your table and other things in the way, most of the time you will want to get close. Practically all cameras these days have a "macro" feature that allows them to focus on objects very close to the lens. If you're going to take a pretty picture of your models, you want to use this feature. This is supposed to be an action shot, so get down to more of a model's eye view--don't take a picture from directly overhead. Get in close to the subject. Make sure it's in focus--if you're unsure if a picture you just took was in focus, take more pictures. If there's not a lot of ambient light in the room, if you can, try to get a desk lamp to illuminate the subject from above and behind so the camera flash doesn't completely wash out the subject and produce harsh shadows--these are more of a problem because you're using the camera close to the subject. Reposition the models slightly if necessary to make them look more photogenic.

In situations a where the background of the picture will show things off the battlefield, I have someone stand at the table edge and hold up a white backdrop, using either foam board or posterboard, to provide a background that is less distracting than the shelves of the local gaming store or the living room wall. Later on I paint out the background when I edit the picture (it's easier to do this when the background is a bright, uniform color) to make it look sharp. Going this far is an aesthetic choice, however.

If you're going to make maps later on, take a snapshot of the entire battlefield. Stand on a chair if one is available to get a bird's eye view (and be careful not to slip and fall). This kind of picture doesn't have to be pretty, as you will just use it for reference later. I usually take one picture at deployment, and one at the end of each player turn (more if I can't get the entire battlefield in a single frame).

I have found that it is imperative to write down in my notes whenever I take a picture. I jot down what the picture was, e.g. "end of turn pic" for a reference picture, or "assault pic" for a pretty picture of an assault, etc., and then draw a box around it so it's easy to find later. That way, when I am writing up the report, I can look at the picture files and map them to the notes so I'm sure exactly what I'm looking at, and at what stage of the battle. Whenever I have neglected to do this, I find myself frustrated, poring over my notes and racking my brain, trying to figure out just when each picture was taken (Was that the end of turn 2, or the middle of turn 3?) even though I had thought it would be obvious.

Once the battle is over, you'll want to edit the pictures. Use your photo-editing software to crop the pictures appropriately. Look for a feature in your software called "Auto Levels" or something similar. It will automatically adjust the brightness, contrast, and color balance of the pictures, and can dramatically improve their appearance. Use this feature after you have cropped the images. If you don't like the results, you can always revert to the original image, or edit the levels manually. In many cases, changing the levels can save an otherwise unusable picture.

An unedited picture from one of my battles

The same picture, cropped, edited to balance the levels, and with the background cleaned up

Making Maps
First I will state that making maps isn't strictly necessary--frequently pictures will be sufficient to show the action. I include them because it is a style choice I have made--it's easy to see where troops have moved compared to the previous turn, it gives an unobstructed view of the battlefield, and you can mark casualties so you can see where all the action is. Personally I use a CAD program called Campaign Cartographer. Using that program, I made various symbol libraries to represent my various troops and vehicles, and my terrain pieces, which I can then reuse in all future maps. It took some work in the beginning to make them, but now I can pound out the maps for a given battle relatively quickly.

I have seen other battle reports where people have used programs like Vassal or Paint, and some battle reports where people simply take pictures of the battlefield, and use a photo editing program to draw arrows and annotations directly on to them. Each method has its own advantages, and it's up to you to choose whatever method you think works best.

One of my maps, made using Campaign Cartographer

Writing up the Report
The primary goal of the battle report is to present a clear, readable description of what happened during the game, to a wide audience. Use good grammar and punctuation, and use a spell checker! Some game specific jargon is ok, but don't overdo it. While it might be fashionable to refer to Eldar Harlequins in Wave Serpents as "clown cars", not every player in the 40k community knows what it means. If you describe your battle as a "Clown Cars vs. Daemon Bomb" battle, very quickly you'll have some readers unfamiliar with the terms either continuing to read in total confusion, or not bothering to read it at all. You want your report to be accessible to all your readers.

If my opponent is good enough to give me a briefing/debriefing, I tend not to edit it much except for punctuation and spelling. Everyone has their own style of writing, and as such their style is a view into how they think and approach the game, and so I think that their contributions should generally be kept as is.

Many players like to write fluff text for their battle reports, sometimes as teasers at the beginning and end, and sometimes interspersed with the descriptive text of the report. In my experience there are people who love reading the fluff more than the report itself, while others couldn’t care less about the fluff and just skip over it to get to the report proper. My preference in general is to keep the fluff to the minimum, but to spice up the text a little bit so it’s not totally dry . Which route you take is ultimately up to you, and you should write what you enjoy writing about. Be aware, however, that if your fluff is so dominant that you’re only peripherally recounting the game details itself, you are not writing a battle report; you are writing fan fiction.

Once the battle is over, you will doubtless be thinking about how well your plan did (or did not) work out, what mistakes you made, what you might have done differently. So will your opponent. It serves both the players and your readers to write down a debriefing. Like the briefing did earlier, writing down your thoughts will force you to think about the battle in specific terms, and give you concrete examples of lessons learned from the battle. You can also use this opportunity to explain your line of reasoning during the game, such as when you completely abandoned your initial plan, or what you were thinking when you tried a daring new tactic on the fly.

In the end, the game is about having fun, so writing a battle report should be (almost) as rewarding as playing it. In addition to your victories, don't be afraid to publish your crushing defeats. No one really cares if you win or lose—they just want to read a good battle report. So write up your losses just like your wins. All the comments you get will help make you a better player. If you put the effort into writing a good report that is presented well, other people will enjoy it too. Soon you’ll find yourself itching to fight another battle, as much for the joy of playing it as for the joy of writing it up and sharing the results with others.


Anonymous said...


suneokun said...

Arcadia, your batreps are a benchmark online and I devour every one. They are very detailed, but strike the right balance (mainly) between pace and minutae. I've worked hard at the few I've done. Up until this point producing map using powerpoint (which works ok), I'll check out this cartographer - it looks good - keep up the good work!

Max said...

Awesome tutorial- I'm starting a blog over at defendinghumanity.blogspot.com, and batreps are one of my major hurdles. Hopefully I'll be able to incorporate at least a little of this advice in there. Thanks!

dareyouhack said...

thx. U spoke about something called Campaign Cartographer- is that program free?

Darkwing said...

Unfortunately it's not free, but I think it's definitely worth it if you're into making maps of any kind. There's a banner link to it at the bottom of my blog pages.